Swartz on Slate
A few bits from a new piece about Aaron Swartz on Slate -
“Suits,” he wrote on his blog, “are the physical evidence of power distance, the entrenchment of a particular form of inequality.”
On Kafka's Trial: “This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”
College was not an intellectual dream world—it was just another place that needed fixing. “If I wanted to start a more effective university, it would be pretty simple,” he wrote on his third day at Stanford. “Hire the smartest people and accept the smartest students, get them to work on projects that interest them ... organize a bunch of show-and-tells and mixers, and for the most part let them figure stuff out on their own.”
Swartz later acquired his FBI file, which indicated that agents had surveilled his parents’ Highland Park home. That FBI file, Swartz said, was “truly delightful.” At the time, it all seemed funny—the feds getting so upset over something so minor. But Malamud now believes the PACER downloads contributed to the government’s subsequent fervor in prosecuting the JSTOR case. In their eyes, Swartz was a repeat offender, a data vigilante. This was no small thing.
Swartz’s JSTOR scheme was different from his PACER escapade in several crucial ways. First, JSTOR is not a repository of non-copyrightable government documents. Though users with subscription access to JSTOR can grab its contents for free, it is a paid service—major research institutions pony up as much as $50,000 annually for access—that houses journal articles that are mostly under copyright. Second, Swartz wasn’t spurred by an easily identifiable, information-liberating call to action along the lines of Carl Malamud’s PACER push. There was one potential precedent: A couple of years prior, Swartz had collaborated with a Stanford law student named Shireen Barday on a project that involved downloading almost 450,000 articles from the Westlaw database and analyzing them to see who, exactly, was funding legal research. While it’s possible that Swartz was going to post his JSTOR cache on the Web, it’s also plausible that he simply planned to use the articles for research along the lines of the Shireen Barday project. We can’t be sure.
In 2008, Swartz wrote something he called the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:
Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.
"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal—there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: we can fight back.
Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world.